Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 34

Doubtful Information.

The early days of the new year brought little change in John Saltram’s condition. Mr. Mew, and the physician who saw him once in every three days, seemed perhaps a shade more hopeful than they had been, but would express no decided opinion when Gilbert pressed them with close questioning. The struggle was still going on — the issue still doubtful.

“If we could keep the mind at rest,” said the physician, “we should have every chance of doing better; but this constant restlessness, this hyper-activity of the brain, of which you and Mr. Mew tell me, must needs make a perpetual demand upon the patient’s physical powers. The waste is always going on. We cannot look for recovery until we obtain more repose.”

Several weeks had passed since the beginning of John Saltram’s illness, and there were no tidings from Mr. Medler. Every day Gilbert had expected some communication from that practitioner, only to be disappointed. He had called twice in Soho, and on both occasions had been received by a shabby-looking clerk, who told him that Mr. Medler was out, and not likely to come home within any definite time. He was inclined to fancy, by the clerk’s manner on his second visit, that there was some desire to avoid an interview on Mr. Medler’s part; and this fancy made him all the more anxious to see that gentleman. He did not, therefore, allow much time to elapse between this second visit to the dingy chambers in Soho and a third. This time he was more fortunate; for he saw the lawyer let himself in at the street-door with his latch-key, just as the cab that drove him approached the house.

The same shabby clerk opened the door to him.

“I want to see your master,” he said decisively, making a move towards the office-door.

The clerk contrived to block his way.

“I beg your pardon, sir, I don’t think Mr. Medler’s in; but I’ll go and see.”

“You needn’t give yourself the trouble. I saw your master let himself in at this door a minute ago. I suppose you were too busy to hear him come in.”

The clerk coughed a doubtful kind of cough, significant of perplexity.

“Upon my word, sir, I believe he’s out; but I’ll see.”

“Thanks; I’d rather see myself, if you please,” Gilbert said, passing the perturbed clerk before that functionary could make up his mind whether he ought to intercept him.

He opened the office-door and went in. Mr. Medler was sitting at his desk, bending over some formidable document, with the air of a man who is profoundly absorbed by his occupation; with the air also, Gilbert thought, of a man who has been what is vernacularly called “on the listen.”

“Good-morning, Mr. Medler,” Gilbert said politely; “your clerk had such a conviction of your being out, that I had some difficulty in convincing him you were at home.”

“I’ve only just come in; I suppose Lucas didn’t hear me.”

“I suppose not; I’ve been here twice before in search of you, as I conclude you have been told. I have expected to hear from you daily.”

“Well, yes — yes,” replied the lawyer in a meditative way; “I am aware that I promised to write — under certain circumstances.”

“Am I to conclude, then, that you were silent because you had nothing to communicate? that you have obtained no tidings of any kind respecting Mrs. Holbrook?”

Mr. Medler coughed; a cough no less expressive of embarrassment than that of his clerk.

“Why, you see, Mr. Fenton,” he began, crossing his legs, and rubbing his hands in a very deliberate manner, “when I made that promise with reference to Mrs. Holbrook, I made it of course without prejudice to the interests or inclinations of my client. I might be free to communicate to you any information I received upon this subject — or I might find myself pledged to withhold it.”

Gilbert’s face flushed with sudden excitement.

“What!” he cried, “do you mean to say that you have solved the mystery of Marian Holbrook’s fate? that you know her to be alive — safe — well, and have kept back the knowledge from me?”

“I have been compelled to submit to the wishes of my client. I will not say that I have not offered considerable opposition to her desire upon this point, but finding her resolution fixed, I was bound to respect it.”

“She is safe — then all this alarm has been needless? You have seen her?”

“Yes, Mr. Fenton, I have seen her.”

“And she — she forbade you to let me know of her safety? She was willing that I should suffer all the anguish of uncertainty as to her fate? I could not have believed her so unkind.”

“Mrs. Holbrook had especial reasons for wishing to avoid all communication with former acquaintances. She explained those reasons to me, and I fully concurred in them.”

“She might have such reasons with regard to other people; she could have none with reference to me.”

“Pardon me, she mentioned your name in a very particular manner.”

“And yet she has had good cause to trust in my fidelity.”

“She has a very great respect and esteem for you, I am aware. She said as much to me. But her reasons for keeping her affairs to herself just now are quite apart from her personal feeling for yourself.”

“I cannot understand this. I am not to see her then, I suppose; not to be told her address?”

“No; I am strictly forbidden to disclose her address to any one.”

“Yet you can positively assure me that she is in safety — her own mistress — happy?”

“She is in perfect safety — her own mistress — and as happy as it is possible she can be under the unfortunate circumstances of her married life. She has left her husband for ever; I will venture to tell you so much as that.”

“I am quite aware of that fact.”

“How so? I thought Mr. Holbrook was quite unknown to you?”

“I have learnt a good deal about him lately.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed the lawyer, with a genuine air of surprise.

“But of course your client has been perfectly frank in her communications with you upon this subject?” Gilbert said.

“Yes; I know that Mrs. Holbrook has left her husband, but I did not for a moment suppose she had left him of her own free will. From my knowledge of her character and sentiments, that is just the last thing I could have imagined possible. There was no quarrel between them; indeed, she was expecting his return with delight at the very time when she left her home in Hampshire. The thought of sharing her fortune with him was one of perfect happiness. How can you explain her abrupt flight from him in the face of this?”

“I am not free to explain matters, Mr. Fenton,” answered the lawyer; “you must be satisfied with the knowledge that the lady about whom you have been so anxious is safe.”

“I thank God for that,” Gilbert said earnestly; “but that, knowledge of itself is not quite enough. I shall be uneasy so long as there is this secrecy and mystery surrounding her fate. There is something in this sudden abandonment of her husband which is painfully inexplicable to me.”

“Mrs. Holbrook may have received some sudden revelation of her husband’s unworthiness. You are aware that a letter reached her a few hours before she left Hampshire? There is no doubt that letter influenced her actions. I do not mind admitting a fact which is so obvious.”

“The revelation that could move her to such a step must have been a very startling one.”

“It was strong enough to decide her course,” replied the lawyer gravely.

“And you can assure me that she is in good hands?” Gilbert asked anxiously.

“I have every reason to suppose so. She is with her father.”

Mr. Medler announced this fact as if there were nothing extraordinary in it. Gilbert started to his feet.

“What!” he exclaimed; “she is with Mr. Nowell — the father who neglected her in her youth, who of course seeks her now only for the sake of her fortune? And you call that being in good hands, Mr. Medler? For my own part, I cannot imagine a more dangerous alliance. When did Percival Nowell come to England?”

“A very short time ago. I have only been aware of his return within the last two or three weeks. His first step on arriving in this country was to seek for his daughter.”

“Yes; when he knew that she was rich, no doubt.”

“I do not think that he was influenced by mercenary motives,” the lawyer said, with a calm judicial air. “Of course, as a man of the world, I am not given to look at such matters from a sentimental point of view. But I really believe that Mr. Nowell was anxious to find his daughter, and to atone in some measure for his former neglect.”

“A very convenient repentance,” exclaimed Gilbert, with a short bitter laugh. “And his first act is to steal his daughter from her home, and hide her from all her former friends. I don’t like the look of this business, Mr. Medler; I tell you so frankly.”

“Mr. Nowell is my client, you must remember, Mr. Fenton. I cannot consent to listen to any aspersion of his character, direct or indirect.”

“And you positively refuse to tell me where Mrs. Holbrook is to be found?”

“I am compelled to respect her wishes as well as those of her father.”

“She has been placed in possession of her property, I suppose?”

“Yes; her grandfather’s will has been proved, and the estate now stands in her name. There was no difficulty about that — no reason for delay.”

“Will you tell me if she is in London?” Gilbert asked impatiently.

“Pardon me, my dear sir, I am pledged to say nothing about Mrs. Holbrook’s whereabouts.”

Gilbert gave a weary sigh.

“Well, I suppose it is useless to press the question, Mr. Medler,” he said. “I can only repeat that I don’t like the look of this business. Your client, Mr. Nowell, must have a very strong reason for secrecy, and my experience of life has shown me that there is very seldom mystery without wrong doing of some kind behind it. I thank God that Mrs. Holbrook is safe, for I suppose I must accept your assurance that she is so; but until her position is relieved from all this secrecy, I shall not cease to feel uneasy as to her welfare. I am glad, however, that the issue of events has exonerated her husband from any part in her disappearance.”

He was glad to know this — glad to know that however base a traitor to himself, John Saltram had not been guilty of that deeper villany which he had at times been led to suspect. Gilbert Fenton left Mr. Medler’s office a happier man than when he had entered it, and yet only half satisfied. It was a great thing to know that Marian was safe; but he would have wished her in the keeping of any one rather than of him whom the world would have called her natural protector.

Nor was his opinion of Mr. Medler by any means an exalted one. No assertion, of that gentleman inspired him with heart-felt confidence; and he had not left the lawyer’s office long before he began to ask himself whether there was truth in any portion of the story he had heard, or whether he was not the dupe of a lie.

Strange that Marian’s father should have returned at so opportune a moment; still more strange that Marian should suddenly desert the husband she had so devotedly loved, and cast in her lot with a father of whom she knew nothing but his unkindness. What if this man Medler had been, lying to him from first to last, and was plotting to get old Jacob Nowell’s fortune into his own hands?

“I must find her,” Gilbert said to himself; “I must be certain that she is in safe hands. I shall know no rest till I have found her.”

Harassed and perplexed beyond measure, he walked through the busy streets of that central district for some time without knowing where he was going, and without the faintest purpose in his steps. Then the notion suddenly flashed upon him that he might hear something of Percival Nowell at the shop in Queen Anne’s Court, supposing the old business to be still carried on there under the sway of Mr. Tulliver; and it seemed too early yet for the probability of any change in that quarter.

Gilbert was in the Strand when this notion occurred to him. He turned his steps immediately, and went back to Wardour-street, and thence to the dingy court where he had first discovered Marian’s grandfather.

There was no change; the shop looked exactly the same as it had looked in the lifetime of Jacob Nowell. There were the same old guineas in the wooden bowl, the same tarnished tankards and teapots on view behind the wire-guarded glass, the same obscure hints of untold riches within, in the general aspect of the place.

Mr. Tulliver darted forward from his usual lurking-place as Gilbert went in at the door.

“O!” he exclaimed, with undisguised disappointment, “it’s you, is it, sir? I thought it was a customer.”

“I am sorry to disappoint your expectation of profit. I have looked in to ask you two or three questions, Mr. Tulliver; that is all.”

“Any information in my power I’m sure I shall be happy to afford, sir. Won’t you be pleased to take a seat?”

“How long is it since you saw Mr. Nowell, your former employer’s son?” Gilbert asked, dropping into the chair indicated by the shopman, and coming at once to the point.

Mr. Tulliver was somewhat startled by the question. That was evident, though he was not a man who wore his heart upon his sleeve.

“How long is it since I’ve seen Mr. Nowell — Mr. Percival Nowell, sir?” he repeated, staring thoughtfully at his questioner.

“Yes; you need not be afraid to speak freely to me; I know Mr. Nowell is in London.”

“Well, sir, I’ve not seen him often since his father’s death.”

Since his father’s death! And according to Mr. Medler, Jacob Nowell’s son had only arrived in England after the old man’s death; — or stay, the lawyer had declared that he had been only aware of Percival’s return within the last two or three weeks. That was a different thing, of course; yet was it likely this man could have returned, and his father’s lawyer have remained ignorant of his arrival?

Gilbert did not allow the faintest expression of surprise to appear on his countenance.

“Not often since your master’s death: but how often before?”

“Well, he used to come in pretty often before the old man died; but they were both of ’em precious close. Mr. Percival never let out that he was my master’s son, but I guessed as much before he’d been here many times.”

“How was it that I never came across him?”

“Chance, I suppose; but he’s a deep one. If you’d happened to come in when he was here, I daresay he’d have contrived to slip away somehow without your seeing him.”

“When did he come here last?” asked Gilbert.

“About a fortnight ago. He came with Mr. Medler, the lawyer, who introduced him formally as my master’s son; and they took possession of the place between them for Mrs. Holbrook, making an arrangement with me to carry on the business, and making precious hard terms too.”

“Have you seen Mrs. Holbrook since that morning when she left London for Hampshire, immediately after her grandfather’s death?”

“Never set eyes on her since then; but she’s in London, they told me, living with her father. She came up to claim the property. I say, the husband must be rather a curious party, mustn’t he, to stand that kind of thing, and part company with her just when she’s come into a fortune?”

“Have you any notion where Mrs. Holbrook or her father is to be found? I should be glad to make you a handsome present if you could enlighten me upon that point.”

“I wish I could, sir. No, I haven’t the least idea where the gentleman hangs out. Oysters ain’t closer than that party. I thought he’d get his paw upon his father’s money, somehow, when I used to see him hanging about this place. But I don’t believe the old man ever meant him to have a sixpence of it.”

There was very little satisfaction, to be obtained from Mr. Tulliver; and except as to the one fact of Percival Nowell’s return, Gilbert left Queen Anne’s Court little wiser than when he entered it.

Brooding upon the revelations of that day as he walked slowly westward, he began to think that Percival and Mr. Medler had been in league from the time of the prodigal son’s return, and that his own exclusion from the will as executor, and the substitution of the lawyer’s name, had been brought about for no honourable purpose. What would a weak inexperienced woman be between two such men? or what power could Marian have, once under her father’s influence, to resist his will? How she had fallen under that influence so completely as to leave her husband and her quiet country home, without a word of explanation, was a difficult question to answer; and Gilbert Fenton meditated upon it with a troubled mind.

He walked westward, indifferent where he went in the perplexity of his thoughts, anxious to walk off a little of his excitement if he could, and to return to his sick charge in the temple in a calmer frame of mind. It was something gained, at the worst, to be able to return to John Saltram’s bedside freed from that hideous suspicion which had tormented him of late.

Walking thus, he found himself, towards the close of the brief winter day, at the Marble Arch. He went through the gate into the empty Park, and was crossing the broad road near the entrance, when an open carriage passed close beside him, and a woman’s voice called to the coachman to stop.

The carriage stopped so abruptly and so near him that he paused and looked up, in natural wonderment at the circumstance. A lady dressed in mourning was leaning forward out of the carriage, looking eagerly after him. A second glance showed him that this lady was Mrs. Branston.

“How do you do, Mr. Fenton,” she cried, holding out her little black-gloved hand: “What an age since I have seen you! But you have not forgotten me, I hope?”

“That is quite impossible, Mrs. Branston. If I had not been very much absorbed in thought just now, I should have recognised you sooner. It was very kind of you to stop to speak to me.”

“Not at all. I have something most particular to say to you. If you are not in a very great hurry, would you mind getting into the carriage, and letting me drive you round the Park? I can’t keep you standing in the road to talk.”

“I am in no especial hurry, and I shall be most happy to take a turn round the Park with you.”

Mrs. Branston’s footman opened the carriage-door, and Gilbert took his seat opposite the widow, who was enjoying her afternoon drive alone for once in a way; a propitious toothache having kept Mrs. Pallinson within doors.

“I have been expecting to see you for ever so long, Mr. Fenton. Why do you never call upon me?” the pretty little widow began, with her usual frankness.

“I have been so closely occupied lately; and even if I had not been so, I should have scarcely expected to find you in town at this unfashionable season.”

“I don’t care the least in the world for fashion,” Mrs. Branston said, with an impatient shrug of her shoulders. “That is only an excuse of yours, Mr. Fenton; you completely forgot my existence, I have no doubt. All my friends desert me now-a-days — older friends than you. There is Mr. Saltram, for instance. I have not seen him for — O, not for ever so long,” concluded the widow, blushing in the dusk as she remembered that visit of hers to the Temple — that daring step which ought to have brought John Saltram so much nearer to her, but which had resulted in nothing but disappointment and regret — bitter regret that she should have cast her womanly pride into the very dust at this man’s feet to no purpose.

But Adela Branston was not a proud woman; and even in the midst of her regret for having done this foolish thing, she was always ready to make excuses for the man she loved, always in danger of committing some new folly in his behalf.

Gilbert Fenton felt for the poor foolish little woman, whose fair face was turned to him with such a pleading look in the wintry twilight. He knew that what he had to tell her must needs carry desolation to her heart — knew that in the background of John Saltram’s life there lurked even a deeper cause of grief for this gentle impressionable little soul.

“You will not wonder that Mr. Saltram has not called upon you lately when you know the truth,” he said gravely: “he has been very ill.”

Mrs. Branston clasped her hands, with a faint cry of terror.

“Very ill — that means dangerously ill?”

“Yes; for some time he was in great danger. I believe that is past now; but I am not quite sure of his safety even yet. I can only hope that he may recover.”

Hope that he might recover, yes; but to be a friend of his, Gilbert’s, never more. It was a dreary prospect at best. John Saltram would recover, to seek and reclaim his wife, and then those two must needs pass for ever out of Gilbert Fenton’s life. The story would be finished, and his own part of it bald enough to be told on the fly-leaf at the end of the book.

Mrs. Branston bore the shock of his ill news better than Gilbert had expected. There is good material even in the weakest of womankind when the heart is womanly and true.

She was deeply shocked, intensely sorry; and she made no attempt to mask her sorrow by any conventional speech or pretence whatsoever. She made Gilbert give her all the details of John Saltram’s illness, and when he had told her all, asked him plainly if she might be permitted to see the sick man.

“Do let me see him, if it is possible,” she said; “it would be such a comfort to me to see him.”

“I do not say such a thing is not possible, my dear Mrs. Branston; but I am sure it would be very foolish.”

“O, never mind that; I am always doing foolish things. It would only be one folly more, and would hardly count in my history. Dear Mr. Fenton, do let me see him.”

“I don’t think you quite know what you are asking, Mrs. Branston. Such a sick-bed as John Saltram’s would be a most painful scene for you. He has been delirious from the beginning of his illness, and is so still. He rarely has an interval of anything like consciousness, and in all the time that I have been with him has never yet recognised me; indeed, there are moments when I am inclined to fear that his brain may be permanently deranged.”

“God forbid!” exclaimed Adela, in a voice that was choked with tears.

“Yes, such a result as that would be indeed a sore calamity. I have every wish to set your mind at ease, believe me, Mrs. Branston, but in John Saltram’s present state I am sure it would be ill-advised for you to see him.”

“Of course I cannot press the question if you say that,” Adela answered despondently; “but I should have been so glad if you could have allowed me to see him. Not that I pretend to the smallest right to do so; but we were very good friends once — before my husband’s death. He has changed to me strangely since that time.”

Gilbert felt that it was almost cruel to keep this poor little soul in utter ignorance of the truth. He did not consider himself at liberty to say much; but some vague word of warning might serve as a slight check upon the waste of feeling which was going on in the widow’s heart.

“There may be a reason for that change, Mrs. Branston,” he said. “Mr. Saltram may have formed some tie of a kind to withdraw him from all other friendships.”

“Some attachment, you mean!” exclaimed the widow; “some other attachment,” she added, forgetting how much the words betrayed. “Do you think that, Mr. Fenton? Do you think that John Saltram has some secret love-affair upon his mind?”

“I have some reason to suspect as much, from words that he has dropped during his delirium.”

There was a look of unspeakable pain in Mrs. Branston’s face, which had grown deadly pale when Gilbert first spoke of John Saltram’s illness. The pretty childish lips quivered a little, and her companion knew that she was suffering keenly.

“Have you any idea who the lady is?” she asked quietly, and with more self-command than Gilbert had expected from her.

“I have some idea.”

“It is no one whom I know, I suppose?”

“The lady is quite a stranger to you.”

“He might have trusted me,” she said mournfully; “it would have been kinder in him to have trusted me.”

“Yes, Mrs. Branston; but Mr. Saltram has unfortunately made concealment the policy of his life. He will find it a false policy sooner or late.”

“It was very cruel of him not to tell me the truth. He might have known that I should look kindly upon any one he cared for. I may be a very foolish woman, Mr. Fenton, but I am not ungenerous.”

“I am sure of that,” Gilbert said warmly, touched by her candour.

“You must let me know every day how your friend is going on, Mr. Fenton,” Adela said after a pause; “I shall consider it a very great favour if you will do so.”

“I will not fail.”

They had returned to Cumberland-gate by this time, and at Gilbert’s request Mrs. Branston allowed him to be set down near the Arch. He called a cab, and drove to the Temple; while poor Adela went back to the splendid gloom of Cavendish-square, with all the fabric of her future life shattered.

Until this hour she had looked upon John Saltram’s fidelity to herself as a certainty; she knew, now that her hope was slain all at once, what a living thing it had been, and how great a portion of her own existence had taken its colour therefrom.

It was fortunate for Mrs. Branston that Mrs. Pallinson’s toothache, and the preparations and medicaments supplied to her by her son — all declared to be infallible, and all ending in ignominious failure — occupied that lady’s attention at this period, to the exclusion of every other thought, or Adela’s pale face might have excited more curiosity than it did. As it was, the matron contented herself by making some rather snappish remarks upon the folly of going out to drive late on a January afternoon, and retired to administer poultices and cataplasms to herself in the solitude of her own apartment soon after dinner, leaving Adela Branston free to ponder upon John Saltram’s cruelty.

“If he had only trusted me,” she said to herself more than once during those mournful meditations; “if he had only given me credit for some little good sense and generosity, I should not feel it as keenly as I do. He must have known that I loved him — yes, I have been weak enough to let him see that — and I think that once he used to like me a little — in those old happy days when he came so often to Maidenhead. Yes, I believe he almost loved me then.”

And then the thought that this man was lying desperately ill, perhaps in danger of death, blotted out every other thought. It was so bitter to know him in peril, and to be powerless to go to him; worse than useless to him were she by his side, since it was another whose image haunted his wandering brain — another whose voice he longed to hear.

She spent a sleepless melancholy night, and had no rest next day, until a commissionnaire brought her a brief note from Gilbert Fenton, telling her that if there were any change at all in the patient, it was on the side of improvement.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31